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The history of Oregon’s Willamette Valley Wine Region is a story of climate, soil, craft and culture. All these elements converge in a “perfect storm” for world-class Pinot Noir. Oregon is the third largest wine producer in the United States behind California and Washington. Oregon’s Willamette Valley is the state’s largest wine region. The Willamette Valley’s leading varietal is Pinot Noir but producers are captivating audiences with Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling and Gewürztraminer among some 72 other varietals.
The Willamette Valley AVA is a fertile triangular region of more than 100 miles long and up to 60 miles wide. The Valley climate provides an elongated grape-growing season that is said to be ideal for Pinot Noir. Winter is typically cool, wet and mild. Spring is oftentimes rainy and summers are warm with cool evenings. An important distinction is the Willamette Valley location on the global 45th area is considered to be an ideal climate for viniferous grape growing; it is said to provide the ideal balance of temperature, humidity and soil.
The Willamette Valley’s rich soils are the beneficiaries of massive Ice Age floods called the Missoula Floods. Geologists estimate some 40 floods between 15,000 and 13,000 years ago left up to 200 feet of rich fertile sediment on the Willamette Valley floor and hillsides, according to John Eliot Allen and Marjorie Burns’ Cataclysms on the Columbia, a noted book on the subject.
Winemaking in the valley – in all of Oregon, in truth – is predominantly artisanal or handcrafted with an eye toward creating world-class wines. What’s more, being good stewards of the environment is a mainstream way of life here. A whopping 47 percent of the state’s vineyards are “certified sustainable acres,” according to Charles Humble, director of communications for the Oregon Winegrowers Association. At that figure, he said, Oregon leads the nation in this category. The two larger wine industry states, California and Washington, don’t come anywhere close to that figure and do not bother to monitor or record sustainable wine acreage in any organized fashion.
Handcrafted and sustainable practices at the vineyard level are buttressed by fervent policy engagement to guide and secure the industry’s collective goal to rise together and continue it's journey in premier wine production. For example since 2001, the Willamette Valley has been divided into six new sub-AVAs (American Viticulture Areas), which resulted from petitions or formal requests from within the wine industry. These AVAs are distinguishable by geographic features, within boundaries defined by federal authorities. With more and more of these AVAs in place, smaller Willamette Valley regions are able to distinguish themselves to consumers. In a way, it is a form of self-imposed certified marketing. If a label says the wine is from that AVA, it must be so by law. “Oregon got its ticket to the dance by taking its wine seriously,” Humble said. To him, it is a significant new chapter in the evolution of Oregon’s wine industry. “It creates an identity for the kinds of wines and soils within an area.”
The Oregon wine industry also rallied around the creation of a state labeling law to safeguard quality. The law states that a wine’s origin and type must be properly labeled. The law established a 90 percent minimum varietals content, meaning that in order to call it a Pinot Noir, it has to be made from at least 90 percent Pinot grapes, instead of the current national standard of 75 percent. The same is true for regional naming; if a wine is claimed to be from Oregon, at least 95 percent of its grapes must come from Oregon. Every licensed winery in Oregon had to sign off on the mandate in order for it to be approved by state regulators.
The early Oregon pioneers of European origin were thought to bring vines along and plant acres of vineyards. Anti-alcohol sentiments forced the closure and eventual loss of most of them as Oregon was among the first states to adopt prohibition in 1913 and one of the last to end it in 1933.
A fellow by the name of Richard Sommer was the first to revive the wine industry in Oregon. In the early 1960s, Sommer came to Oregon with the vision of opening the first post-Prohibition winery. He hired an accomplished local attorney to help him with this heady task, which included obtaining licensure for an entirely new industry. That attorney was the father of Jim Bernau, the founder of Willamette Valley Vineyards. Sommer would find the land for his vineyard in the Umpqua Valley outside of Roseburg and name it Hillcrest Vineyards. Observing that process up close had a profound impact on the young Jim Bernau. Before he built Willamette Valley Vineyards, Jim worked for years as a wine industry lobbyist, helping lay the foundation for the introduction of this new industry to his home state. In 1983, Jim would set his lifelong dream in motion with the purchase of the land to build his vineyard. Today, it is Willamette Valley Vineyards’ Estate Vineyard.
Bill Fuller, founder of Tualatin Estates in 1973, is another noteworthy industry icon. Bill held leadership positions in many industry associations and played a pivotal role in the formation of the state’s wine labeling law. In fact, many industry insiders credit Tualatin Estates’ first wines for inspiring Oregon’s strict labeling law that today safeguards the highest standards for wine quality in the United States.
Bill Fuller’s wines won many awards in those early days. For example, his 1980 Pinot Noir and 1981 Chardonnay won “Double Gold” and “Best in Show” trophies in London’s prestigious 1984 international judging -- trophies presented to Bill by the Queen of England. That same year, Tualatin Estates was the first Oregon winery to be placed on the Wine Spectator magazine’s Top 100 list of wineries in the world. Upon his retirement, Bill sold his vineyard to Jim and it is now an integral part of the Willamette Valley Wineries.
Sommer and Fuller were among a handful of early industry entrepreneurs. In Oregon, we fondly call them “the founders.” These folks and many others evoke a sense of pride in Oregonians. They have managed to capture national and international attention for their great wines. “Somewhere along the way, they ultimately settled on how to be successful, and that was a relentless focus on quality,” Humble said. “They were never going to build a Gallo, but they realized if they focused on learning, sharing and building community collectively, these small winemakers were going to make it.”
This section is largely taken from the history chapter in “Winemakers of the Willamette Valley; Pioneering Vintners from Oregon’s Wine Country,” which was published by The History Press and writen by Vivian Perry. The illustrated, full-color book is available for purchase in our Estate and McMinnville tasting rooms.